Tuesday

17th Oct 2017

EU sanctions could follow Belarus election fraud

The EU is considering boosting sanctions against Belarus after the OSCE on Monday (20 March) declared the weekend's elections were "not free and fair."

President Lukashenko officially scooped 82.6 percent of the vote in a result described as "sticking two fingers up to the west" by one EU diplomat stationed in Minsk.

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The OSCE's preliminary report focused on government intimidation and lack of media access for opposition campaigners, noting the vote count was "highly problematic."

"In a number of instances, the results were completed in pencil, and the majority of observers were prevented from standing close enough to see the marks on the ballot."

Ursula Plassnik, the foreign minister of Austria which currently holds the EU presidency, said that the EU "agrees with the OSCE's assessment," but indicated the union is still "reflecting" on an "adequate response."

Ms Plassnik added that further discussions "will include possibility of restrictive sanctions to those responsible."

Ms Plassnik spoke after a foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday, which according to diplomats revealed a rift particularly between "new" and "old" member states on how to react to events in Belarus.

New member states pressed for an immediate political response by the bloc after the OSCE’s assessment.

The extension of the existing visa ban to Belarus officials was one idea proposed, as well as a fresh invitation for opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich to visit Brussels.

But foreign ministers failed to issue a declaration with immediate sanctions, with "old" member states warning of further isolation of Minsk and increased suffering of the Belarusian population.

Sources said that provided EU capitals agreed, sanctions could be announced as early as Tuesday.

Second opposition rally

Opposition leaders in Belarus have asked the international community not to recognise the Belarus government and called for a second opposition rally at October Square at 18:30 Minsk time on Monday.

"The degree of fraud is so big that it will infuriate everybody," opposition campaigner Jaroslaw Romanchuk told EUobserver.

But he predicted fewer people on Monday will take to the streets than the 15,000 to 20,000 seen on Sunday night in the biggest protests in the country for a decade.

The Sunday night rally went off peacefully, but the freezing streets around October Square were packed with trucks full of soldiers in a tense atmosphere.

Visa ban could be extended

Extension of the current EU visa ban on seven Belarusian officials to more names is the most likely first move, but Belarusian NGOs say the list should be long and include family members.

"They still go on holiday to Turkey. Their wives and children go shopping in London and New York," NGO activist Natalia explained.

Tariffs on non-energy Belarus exports to the EU are set to go up in November anyway if Minsk gets kicked out of the Generalised System of Preferences on trade due to trade union complaints.

And sanctions aside, quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is already having an effect.

One story doing the rounds in Minsk is that Washington leaned on Moscow to guarantee no violence in October Square or risk losing its G8 summit in St Petersburg in July.

But EU diplomats warned that despite "kitchen-sink politics that there should be change", few Belarusians are willing to take direct action.

"They want the change to come from outside, but they have to make it themselves," one contact said.

Non-recognition of the Belarusian government is also problematic, carrying the logical conclusion of closing embassies and leaving businessmen as the only western envoys to Minsk.

Lukashenko defiant

Meanwhile, president Lukashenko gave a defiant press conference from behind a giant desk on a giant, empty stage in his palace two hours after the OSCE report.

"Let me say, that the revolution that so many people talked about and some were preparing, has failed," he said. "Despite the pressure and orders from outside, they couldn't break us."

EUobserver also met some "independent" election monitors in the official press centre who saw no evidence of fraud in the poll.

"I have to say, they were just as fair as anything I observed in Poland," Polish academic Boleslaw Chmylinski stated, before going on to praise the beauties of Minsk.

"Take the train station - is it not a pearl?" he said.

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